December 11

Plebiscites – as with opinion polls, it all depends on the question




If the republican movement has its way, Australians will be ordered to the urns to vote in two spurious  plebiscites designed to rewrite our tried and tested Constitution.  This is of course against the spirit and possibly the letter of our constitution, which for over a hundred years has clearly established the referendum as the only way in which the Constitution should be changed. The Founders of our nation were well aware of the abuse to which plebiscites can be put to justify constitutional change; they were well aware of the blatant misuse of the plebiscite by the Bonapartes.

(The accompanying poster was used in the plebiscite to approve the coup d'état  by  President Bonaparte in 1851. In the following year be became Napoleon III, Emperor of the French – after yet another plebiscite.)

So why do Australia's republicans want these plebiscites? They want them for two reasons. First, the republican movement is too undemocratic to accept the peoples’ overwhelming decision in 1999. Second they expect that if asked again, the people will come to the same conclusion if they were asked again.  Indeed Professor Greg Craven thinks that the defeat would be even more resounding than in 1999.

 The principal difference between the plebiscite our founders did not want, and the referendum they carefully chose, is this. In the plebiscite the people get the details after, and not before they vote. A constitutional plebiscite is like a blank cheque. And as with opinion polls, it all depends on the question. A skilled spin doctor can phrase the question to get the answer he or she wants, even doubling the vote.  That is why Australians for Constitutional Monarchy have been opposed to the republican ruse to use these since they were first mooted soon after the referendum.

This brings me to Canada.  The monarchy remains popular in this Realm, as evidenced by poll after poll after poll over the years. For example the 2002 Ipsos-Reid poll found that 79% of Canadians approved of “the constitutional monarchy as Canada's form of government where we elect governments whose leader becomes Prime Minister."

Sixty two per cent believed the monarchy helps to define Canada's identity.

The 2002 Leger Marketing poll found 50% said "yes" to the statement "Elizabeth II is currently the Queen of Canada. Do you (yes or no) want Canada to maintain the monarchy?"   Notwithstanding the ambivalence of the word “maintain” which suggests that The Queen is paid by Canadians – she is not- only 43% said "no".

 Taken after the announcement of the marriage of the Prince of Wales, a poll in March 2005 poll by Pollara Inc. for Rogers Media Inc. and Canada’s leading magazine, Maclean's, still found that 46% supported, while 37% opposed the statement: "Do you support or oppose Canada replacing the British Monarch as Canadian Head of State?"  This was despite the bias of including the word  “British” in the question – the Canadian Crown is entirely separate from the Crown of the United Kingdom. 

As we reported in this   column on 21 May 2005, an open poll about retaining The Queen as Head of State taken by The Globe and Mail newspaper in Canada resulted in a landslide in favour of The Queen:  82 per cent to 18 per cent!  An extraordinarily large number of Canadians voted, approximately 70,000.

So a poll taken by Angus Reid and published on 1 October, 2007 came as a surprise, and was supected to be an aberration. It found that 53 per cent of respondents would support Canada “ending its formal ties to the British monarchy.” As you will see from the analysis below, the response to an unbiased question would be almost one half of this,  29%.

No wonder Australia’s republicans want a plebiscite where they will write the question rather than an honest referendum.

A perusal of the precise terms of the question explains the response. This was “Next, we’d like to ask you some questions about the monarchy. Under the terms of the Canadian Constitution, Queen Elizabeth II holds the position of Canada’s head of state. Would you support or oppose Canada ending its formal ties to the British monarchy?”

Robert Finch, Dominion Chairman of The Monarchist League of Canada, La ligue monarchiste du Canada, wondered about this poll. He had it investigated by “Senex” who has written a most thorough  analysis  for the forthcoming Fall-Winter 2007 issue of Canadian Monarchist News.

 Senex concludes that the principal question in the  Angus Reid survey was  biased  in no less than the following four ways.

“First, using the adjective "formal" suggests that the "ties" are merely perfunctory, exist only in a formal, legalistic sense, are less than real or somehow differ from reality. Used in this way, they present a picture akin to "My father is the formal head of our family but everyone knows it is mother who makes the real decisions." Another connotation of formal is, of course, "stuffy" as in "I hate the formal nature of that restaurant/club/church/black tie social event…"

“Second, the use of the noun "ties" is similarly biased.  "Ties" presents a picture of restraints, of being held back, of being bound rather than freed, as in "He never grew up as he was so dependent on the ties to his family," or "She is so tied to her work that she neglects her family."

“Third, and most obvious, the adjective "British" immediately suggests that our monarchy is a foreign institution, neither of our own making nor our own affirming.  Thus the pollster strikes a triple blow favouring a negative response. In baseball terms, a triple gets the batter three-quarters of the way to home plate. In this case, home plate is the "Increased republican sentiment in Canada" headlines that accompanied the release of the survey.

“In addition,” Senex adds,” further implicit bias comes from the fact that, as worded, an affirmative response to the question is negative towards the Crown, while a negative response is affirmative. This runs contrary to natural expression and neutral principles.”

Even with these four biases, support for the Crown in British Columbia, a traditionalist province with large numbers of immigrants, was 53% to 32%.  As in Australia the most republican group across Canada were the middle aged,   35 to 54 years old.  But support for the Crown was higher among more affluent households. Liberal and NDP voters support the Crown by a few percentage points more than Conservatives.  (This would be like Labor voters being marginally more supportive of the Australian Crown than Coalition voters.) This, Senex concludes, is encouraging in the sense that no one can call the Monarchy the property of one party. Senex asks pointedly, is there any other institution which can so effectively cross partisan boundaries?

One of the fascinating points about the survey is that the results are hardly affected by the prospect of Prince Charles succeeding to the Throne. Inserting a reference to Prince Charles as King produces a statistically insignificant variation in the response – two per cent.  This is of relevance to Australia, where the republicans, under the influence of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke say some sort of republic will be feasible after this reign.  

A colleague reminded me of my words on those Australian republicans who are banking everything on the end of the reign: “The Australian republican movement is always dreaming of some future event which will magically deliver them the result they can’t be bothered to work for.”

There is a crucial discrepancy between the responses which demonstrates the first question gives a false response. Asked who should succeed The Queen, respondents were given three options: Prince Charles to succeed Elizabeth II, Prince William to do so – and of significance for our purposes, "Neither, there should be no monarch after Queen Elizabeth II."  

The results were surprising: 20% for Prince Charles to succeed, 35% for Prince William to succeed,  29%  for the neither option and a relatively high 16% replying unsure. This means that only 29% are republicans, not as in the biased opening question, 53%.

As we say, no wonder Australia’s republicans want a plebiscite.

When Robert Finch confronted Angus-Reid about the poll, their Director of Global Studies, Mario Canseco, argued that this survey was “one of the most straightforward ever conducted on this topic in Canada.”  Agreeing that there is always room for improvement and that there are “several ways to write a question,” he said that when they undertake a survey on this topic again, he will definitely keep the Mr. Finch “in the loop.”

In future opinion polls, Senex suggests the use of more simple questions such as “Do you favour Canada’s remaining a constitutional monarchy?” and “If not, what system of government would you prefer instead of the monarchy?


It is worth noting the conclusion in this analysis. This poll, Senex  says, “certainly does not suggest any consensus of opinion which would lead any politician to embark on opening the fundamental and wrenching constitutional questions that would spring from a republican initiative – many of which would have everything to do with provincial discontent and a host of other issues unrelated to the Crown, all of which would bedevil the country for generations.”

The Monarchist League of Canada is to be congratulated for not allowing this poll to go by without challenging it. The lesson for Australia is clear. We in Australia must not fall for republican calls for a plebiscite – the question will be designed to get a fraudulent and biased result which the rigour of the referendum process would not allow.

 There is no such thing as a good or acceptable plebiscite on the Australian Constitution. The process is intended to defraud the voter and undermine the Constitution.



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